Paul Theroux 1941–
American novelist, travel writer, short story writer, critic, and poet.
Theroux's growing reputation derives from his steady production of highly commended fiction and travel books. An American expatriate himself, Theroux often focuses in his novels and short stories on strangers in strange lands and the resulting cultural conflicts. His travel books are among the best in the genre.
After graduating from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Theroux joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Malawi in eastern Africa as a lecturer in English. He subsequently lived and taught in Uganda and Singapore before settling in England. He still travels extensively. His first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), contains the impressions and insights gained on a four-month train journey through Turkey, Iran, and the Far East. The Old Patagonia Express (1979) recounts his trip by train from his birthplace in Massachusetts down through the tip of South America. His recent excursion around the coast of England added a third travel book, The Kingdom by the Sea (1983).
Much of Theroux's fiction centers on characters whose experience of a foreign culture has disillusioned them, giving them an unfavorable perspective on the values of their own society. The anthropologist of Black House (1974) is reluctant to return to a British village where the inhabitants seem to him more malicious, violent, and petty than those of the tribal societies he grew to respect. Similarly, the Peace Corps volunteer in Girls at Play (1969) and the insurance salesman in Jungle Lovers (1971) are shaken by the discovery that the standards of conduct they set out to dispense are in fact morally inadequate and potentially destructive. Many of the short stories in The Consul's File (1977) and World's End (1980) feature protagonists who gain comparable insights. Displacement, alienation, and the shifting identity experienced by foreigners are related topics in most of Theroux's work. The most developed of Theroux's emigrant characters is Allie Fox, the "epic hero" of his highly acclaimed novel, The Mosquito Coast (1981). This story of an American who, angered by his country's emphasis on materialism, moves his family to South America portrays the romantic American ideal of starting anew. However, although Allie is well intentioned, his actions are intrusive and harmful to the native culture.
Notable novels outside the realm of cultural conflict are Theroux's first novel, Waldo (1967), The Family Arsenal (1976), and Picture Palace (1978). They explore the themes of creativity and the artist's vicarious role as observer and recorder.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)